A History of the Second Line Jazz Crawl for Charity.
I have a confession to make. Until about the 6th grade I used to blatantly lie and tell my teachers and friends that I was born in New Orleans. In my defense, the city had a strong hold of my heart at a young age and I wasn’t shy about letting everyone in Knoxville, TN know about it. I used to own the cafeteria table at Farragut Intermediate School, negotiating trades for my Zapp’s Cajun Crawtaters to get just about anything I wanted for lunch. I smartened up and started bringing an extra bag of chips.
The matriarch of the Jazz Crawl for Charity: ‘Mama T’
My mother grew up in New Orleans, and being the saint that she is she made sure that the 9-hour drive wouldn’t get in the way of me and my two sisters experiencing the magic of the Crescent City at a young age. My first Mardi Gras was when I was 9 months old, and the fondest memories of my childhood revolve around those parade days camping out on St. Charles at One Shell Square or the summer vacations filled with snow balls, Audobon parks, beignets, Popeyes, and afternoons spent in the French Quarter.
‘Mama T’ also made it a mission to share the festive spirit of Mardi Gras with our friends growing up. Any year we couldn’t make the trip she would come to our classes on Fat Tuesday to teach the kids about the traditions and history of Mardi Gras through a presentation of photo slides, beads, doubloons, and King cake. In the late 90’s she was even brave enough to start chaperoning some of our best friends with us to New Orleans for the parades. She has been a true ambassador of the city ever since she left in the early 80’s.
“If I can’t bring all of my friends and family down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras each year then I’ll bring New Orleans to them.”
My mother isn’t the only transplanted ambassador of New Orleans in my family. My Uncle Tommy and his wife, Patty, settled in Birmingham after leaving New Orleans in the early 90’s. Once my sisters and I started attending high school and college it was more difficult to take a family trip down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, so my Aunt Patty started throwing an annual Mardi Gras party at their beautiful home on Oak Mountain in Pelham, AL. She used to say “If I can’t bring all of my friends and family down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras each year then I’ll bring New Orleans to them”.
That’s precisely what she did with her annual ‘Mystic Krewe of Vieux Do Mardi Gras Party’. It quickly grew into her greatest passion. Each year she and Uncle Tommy improved the Big Easy atmosphere with homemade décor and added to the entertainment with festive activities and samples of New Orleans cuisine and cocktails. It was an epic party that didn’t just bring my family together each year to celebrate Mardi Gras, it gave people that had never been to New Orleans a great sample of the magic and fun loving spirit of the city. The party grew for 8 consecutive years in Alabama until Patty’s unexpected passing in 2012.
The city of Boston has themed pub crawls just about every weekend to raise money for local charities.
I moved to Boston shortly after Aunt Patty’s death. It’s easy to feel like a foreign alien in New England if you’re from the south, but thankfully I had a couple of friends from Knoxville that were also new to the city so we would always look for fun social events to get into on the weekends. One thing we found is that Boston has A LOT of pubs, and themed pub crawls for charity were organized just about every weekend. It was a great way to check out a bunch of different places in the city and meet new people.
Around Mardi Gras time in 2013 my family had a heavy heart thinking about Aunt Patty.
The hole in our tight-knit family was highlighted by the absence of Patty’s beloved celebration. Throughout my entire life, Mardi Gras had been the happiest and most fun time of the year so the feeling of despair associated with the holiday did not settle well with me. We mended this feeling in 2014 when we took my niece and nephew to their first Mardi Gras, but I knew this sort of annual tradition would be hard for everyone to commit to since most of us were living in cities far away from New Orleans. This is when the ideas that subsequently lead to the conception of the Jazz Crawl for Charity started creeping in.
It doesn’t take long to realize that New Orleans and Charleston, SC are sister cities cut from the same mold 300 years ago.
I moved to Charleston, SC one day before ringing in 2015 and jumped right in by attending a NYE party downtown at a jazz bar called Prohibition on Upper King St. The place had a vintage atmosphere that made me feel like I was in a New Orleans jazz club on Frenchmen Street and their bartender/co-owner, Jim McCourt, impressed the hell out of me with his craft and his personality. That’s when I decided I was going to try and mimic the charitable events in Boston by organizing a Mardi Gras themed pub crawl with a donation to a worthy charity as a tribute to Aunt Patty. I had only lived in Charleston for about two weeks when Prohibition and some other great bars on King Street started helping me organize the ‘Mardi Gras Pub Crawl for Charity’.
Once again, I was using a pub crawl in a new city to explore places and meet people, but this time it was from a much different perspective. It was a little crazy trying to organize something like this in a place I had only lived in for a couple weeks, but I knew the first year was going to come with a big learning curve anyway. With the help of Mama T and close friends we were determined to take the ‘Band-Aid approach’ to just get an annual tribute established.
The event has evolved and grown a great deal since it was called the ‘Mardi Gras Pub Crawl for Charity’ in 2015.
The Jazz Crawl for Charity has come a long way since I lead the second line parade down King Street with an old-school boom-box over my head in February 2015. With each of the small failures and successes we’ve continued to learn and improve the event to be more fun and have more of a meaningful and lasting impact on all those that are touched by the festivities, sentiment, and charitable contributions.
It has been an honor to carry the family torch of spreading the spirit of New Orleans to people far and wide, and it’s inspired me to learn a lot more about the history and culture of a city that has had my whole heart ever since I can remember. It has been an overwhelming experience to see how deeply touched people have been by the tribute and celebration over the last few years.